Prelude to Invasion
by Douglas Seacat
Castle Raelthorne, Caspia, early 610 AR
Orin Midwinter strode through the torchlit halls of Castle Raelthorne, his arms burdened with a heavy and awkward pile of old books beneath several rolled charts and maps. He had refused the assistance offered by a scribe assigned to assist him, not trusting the clumsy youth with such priceless items. He was winded from the stairs he had just climbed, and he felt the occasional sharp jolt of pain in his knees and back, yet he felt energized and optimistic. He realized he was actually happy, a strange and almost foreign emotion.
The former inquisitor’s life in the aftermath of the Second Cygnaran Civil War had changed in astounding ways. This realization struck him every day he served in his new role as arcane administrator, hurrying from one meeting to another or returning to his well-stocked laboratory, driven to complete projects in service to the realm. After so many years of struggling just to survive, the relative luxury of his existence still felt novel. Not so long ago, he had spent his hours hatching desperate plans while evading the authorities amid squalid ruins or lurking in the basements of abandoned structures in burned-out villages. Now he had a room he could call his own in the heart of Cygnar’s halls of power, a place where he felt comfortable to sleep through the night while his days were spent in productive work. He sometimes still woke in a panic in the middle of the night, scrambling for his staff before realizing he was safe.
He passed a pair of the palace guard and almost dropped several of his scrolled maps when he nearly collided with the nearest, a man who seemed to steer toward rather than away from him. Midwinter’s eyes narrowed at the man; he wondered if this was intended to be intimidation, though the man stared straight ahead and did not meet the wizard’s gaze.
As they passed each other, that same guard said a single word in a hissed whisper: “Ashoth.”
The word sent a shiver down Midwinter’s spine, and he turned to look over his shoulder, to see if the guard might have intended to say more, but he walked on as if nothing had been said. The arcane administrator clutched his books and rolled charts tighter, his heart pounding painfully in his chest, and only realized he was holding his breath when spots appeared before his eyes. The sound of the retreating footsteps of the guards rang loudly in his ears.
He took a deep gasping breath and rushed back to his room, trying to shake off the sense of panic and alarm that had inexplicably swept through him. Ashoth. The name rang in his ears, in his mind. It seemed to him he should know that name, yet it evoked nothing but dread and anxiety.
The books and charts he carried were discarded to the broad desk in his chamber, but when he turned to his waiting bed, he felt a powerful aversion. It made him almost dizzy to look upon it. He did not think he could sleep here, a thought that would not fade even as he recognized this as an irrational impulse. Stepping toward the bed, he felt nausea and staggered back. This was not natural. He felt torn between the desire to collapse at once and sleep off whatever was driving his inexplicable feelings and the very strong urge to flee his room entirely.
Taking deep breaths to regain control over his own thoughts, Midwinter stepped toward his mirror. He was a skilled enough arcanist to recognize something was wrong. Something external seemed to be affecting his mind. He thought he had protected himself from such things, but no protection was absolute.
Staring at his own reflection, he relaxed his eyes, letting his face become blurry as he entered a trance that allowed his own power to rise in him, to perceive the mystical forces around him.
He saw nothing amiss but focused deeper just the same, more sharply, struggling against his own perceptions. Distrusting his senses, he sought a deeper truth, to separate perception from reality. To divide his emotions from reason. An old exercise taught to junior members of the Inquisition—one he had not attempted in years. It had been an instructional method in his earliest arcane training, one he had thought himself past. It was a struggle…but at last he achieved something akin to true detachment.
There! A glimmer of light in the mirror. Even divided from his emotions, he felt his heart beat faster. Complex whorls and tangles of subtle energy flowed through his skull, his mind. He frowned to see them, realizing the lightest and most delicately woven strands looked like spun strands of gold. He sensed these strands were not new but had been there for some time. They went deep. Layered closer to the surface, nearer to his skull, was a mesh of brighter crimson that looked like a net. This was something more blatant and also more powerful.
Were any of these arcane patterns of his own making? He was confused and uncertain. Perhaps some of these were protective measures he had done to himself. It seemed possible. Much of his time as an inquisitor was hard to remember. He had not been entirely well, either physically or mentally. He had been a different person. A worse person, he had decided. But was that true? This thought provoked a piercing pain that caused him to clasp his brow and wince.
He was compromised. That much was certain. He did not know the answers, but he realized he needed to leave Castle Raelthorne at once. Perhaps it had been some old inquisitor’s instinct that had kept him from accepting the comfort of his own bed. He could not be close to King Julius while he might not be in control of his own actions. He had to get to the bottom of this before he did anything.
That decided, Orin Midwinter felt calmer, more in control. He placed a few items of clothing and other personal effects in a small bag, hooked his staff to his back through a wide chain loop he kept for that purpose, and left his room. His duties as arcane administrator gave him full run of the castle, and he knew a route employed by the servants that would allow him to exit without attracting undue attention. Not knowing what was wrong with him, he felt it was imperative to limit his interactions with any members of the castle staff. He had no specific plan yet, other than isolating himself long enough to gain a better grasp on the situation, but he also knew he would be missed if he was gone for long. Still, he had no meetings during the coming day.
His exodus from the castle was made without incident. He did consider, as he stepped out onto the streets of Caspia in the middle of the night, that he had been safer there. The castle was heavily warded and protected. He did not fear being mugged on the streets, as he had his magic. No simple ruffians could hope to accost him without suffering the consequences. But whatever supernatural matter was afoot, he might be exposing himself to it. Still, he was already compromised, and he had decided the safety of King Julius and the others in the castle was more important than his own well-being.
He was exhausted. Whatever this was, he could not face it without sleep. Mystical forces, particularly those affecting the mind, were not to be trifled with. Removed from the castle, from those who might have been the target of whatever was happening, he felt at liberty to seek a place where he might recover his energies and gather his thoughts. There was an expensive tavern that was known to him not far from the castle, one often frequented by highborn or wealthy petitioners who had business with the Cygnaran government.
It was impossible not to be slightly paranoid and to wonder if even this thought were his own. But that way lay madness. Midwinter could not second-guess every decision. He felt reasonably certain his mind, for the moment, remained his. Being aware of the alleged enchantments affecting him at least granted him some measure of self-awareness. He could be suspicious of intrusive thoughts but had to trust his instincts. They had kept him alive this long, and what else did he have?
The innkeeper accepted his coin and did not seem bothered by his late and unannounced arrival, and soon enough, he closed the door and was alone again. He thought sleep might elude him, given his pressing anxieties, but almost as soon as his head hit the pillow after he blew out the candle’s flame, comforting darkness claimed him.
* * *
Orin Midwinter found himself seated at one side of a broad and flat table in a vast chamber that was stark and colorless. A bowl lay before him, filled with a liquid that was red as blood and which seemed to be the only color in sight. A silver spoon rested neatly upon the table next to the bowl, but he felt no desire to touch it or use it to taste the liquid, though he knew it had been poured for him. He felt small, sitting on a chair that was high-backed with legs that stretched farther than seemed possible. His legs dangled; his feet did not touch the floor. The chair was distinctly uncomfortable, as though it had not been built for human proportions.
Was this a dream? It had to be.
There were no other chairs at the table, and just beyond the other side was a set of stairs leading up to an elevated area where something akin to a mirror stood, its smooth surface utterly black, its frame of twisted and dark iron and shaped like gnarled branches. Occasionally, he felt a shudder that moved through his chair, and he heard a distant deep crashing sound. In response, the black surface of the mirror rippled in rings like the disturbed water of a pond.
A swirling column of smoke erupted into being midway up the stairs he faced. Within the smoke pulsed orange and reddish light, like the embers of wood in a dying fire. The upper portions of this smoke soon took the shape of a pale figure adorned in a black robe and cowl that clutched a thick tome in one of its slender hands. Rune-inscribed strips of cloth dangled from its sleeves and were affixed to its robe, each moving slightly of its own accord as if stirred by an unfelt wind.
The shape stared at him with glowing red eyes, and small wisps of red smoke rose upward from them. Midwinter felt terrified and transfixed, pinned in place by that gaze and aware he was in the presence of a being of unfathomable power. It spoke to him, though the words were not said aloud but instead manifested in his mind.
Orin Midwinter. Do you know me?
His spirit quailed within him, and he knew at once that his answer would be found inadequate. He opened his mouth to say no but instead he whispered aloud, hesitantly, “Ashoth?”
That is one name. You once knew others. Too long you have been gone. I thought you might be seeking to deny me. To escape the pact we sealed in blood.
At this last word, there came another crashing shudder in the distance, provoking the bowl of blood to shimmer like the surface of the black mirror. Midwinter felt himself cringing back and hunkering down within himself. He wanted to deny whatever the creature accused him of doing, as its disapproval was plain, but he did not remember any of what it said. There was a hole in his mind. He opened his mouth to explain this but only managed a raspy gasp.
You have been tampered with and have nearly failed your task. I considered claiming you, but I see you may yet be of use. First, I shall free your mind. You must remember your obligations.
The entity was beside him in the next breath, towering over him. He would have screamed in fright if he were capable of making any sound, but his breath failed him. It reached out with its free hand and placed cold fingers along his brow. He felt a searing and excruciating pain, as if a red-hot poker had been driven through his eyes. Even as he reeled from the pain of having something torn from his mind, the hand gripping his brow clenched and drove his face into the bowl of blood.
* * *
Orin Midwinter woke drenched in sweat in the tavern bed, his blankets tossed aside. He lay there gasping and panting, gripping his head, which throbbed painfully in time to the beating of his heart.
His mind was again his own, and his memories came rushing back. The wonderful dream that had been his life since before Julius was crowned was stripped away. It had been Senior Inquisitor Wilkes Quinn, his friend and peer, who had changed him. Quinn had been a powerful mesmerist, an arcanist whose power over the mind was beyond compare. He had needed Midwinter, needed his mind sane and whole, and so he had done his work, back when they had been recruited by Asheth Magnus to assist the young bastard Julius, who had been raised in secret to seize the Cygnaran throne.
Quinn had done more than reassemble the shattered pieces of Midwinter’s fragile sanity. That had not been enough to assure his cooperation, for Midwinter had made stronger and deeper vows. His determination to see Vinter Raelthorne restored had been more than just loyalty. He had been under the command of greater beings, ones he had turned to in desperation during his worst years while on the run and hunted—when his health had begun to fail him, when he was stricken by a disease that would have claimed his life. He had sought solutions from the only beings he felt certain could provide them.
Midwinter staggered to his feet, still clutching his head, and went to the room’s mirror. He saw a wretched face staring back. He knew the delicate webs of compulsions that had laced his mind were gone. He was himself again, and it was sickening.
“I called you Ashoth. Lesser initiates think you are Ariphon, Kylophelion, or a dozen other names. But in your full power, you are Agathon. You are the Dream Ender. The Taker of Names. The Voice in the Darkness. And I am your servant.”
The words settled his nerves, reminded him of his place, his dignity, and his purpose.
There was much to do.